Grow Your Own Doctors | California’s Attempt to Extend Healthcare Access

Riverside County, California has some of the lowest per capita rates of primary care physicians in the country. For every 100,000 people there are only 34 primary physicians[1]. The shortage of care providers has forced many rural residents to travel to receive medical treatment or forego treatment all together because of the inconvenience.

To address this issue and extend medical care services into these underserved regions, the University of California at Riverside, or UCR, implemented a program to try and “grow” their own doctors from the local community. Focused on increasing the number of physicians, UCR, along with 50 associate institutions, established a new medical school that aims to incentivize students to staying and practice in the region after graduation.

Those who commit to practicing in the area can complete their education and training at UCR free of charge. For those who have opted to stay in the area, the cost of their tuition is covered through a scholarship award. By lowering the cost of education, UCR hopes students will be more incentivized to apply to the school and ultimately increase the number of physicians in the area.

UCR medical program does not have a hospital on campus, allowing students to work with local healthcare providers to complete their required residency hours. This community focus helps foster the school’s mission to serve this county in need of medical services, and develops student’s commitment to stay in the area.

The program in California resembles a program in Kentucky at the College of Osteopathic Medicine, or KYCOM, located in Pike County, Kentucky. Much like Riverside County, rural counties in Kentucky were experiencing a physician shortage in the 1990’s. In 1995, the ratio to primary care physicians in rural Kentucky was 1 to every 2,251[2]. Inspired by these needs, Pikeville College opened up KYCOM in 1997. KYCOM has graduated over 1000 physicians since opening and was ranked nationally as one of the top schools for rural medicine in 2017. As a result, the number of primary care physicians has risen drastically with the number of physicians in Pike County now over 160[3].

While administrators of UCR admit that it is unlikely that all the graduates from the program will opt to practice in Riverside County, establishing the program has increased the number of physicians in the area. The success of these programs indicated free medical school can be a useful strategy in extending health care in rural areas.

Each state has unique factors and obstacles in extending healthcare access in underserved areas but programs such as the one at UCR and KYCOM could provide state policy makers with a template for incentivizing medical students to stay in underserved areas of the country.